Women Seeking Office Quickened By Thomas Flap


IN California, the pledges of time and money coming into the offices of US Senate hopeful Dianne Feinstein are up 25 percent over two weeks ago.In Washington, D.C., the Women's Campaign Fund is receiving $250 checks with notes attached: "This is for Clarence." In Illinois, several women are eyeing the seat of Sen. Alan Dixon (D) in 1992 in the wake of his confirmation vote for Clarence Thomas. The image of male senators in Windsor-knotted ties probing the gender-sensitive issue of sexual harassment has galvanized women activists across the country who vow to turn vitriol into votes. Coming at a time when the public is already upset over incumbent politicians and redistricting has created a large number of open seats, activists predict a "banner" year for women at the ballot box in 1992. A weekend poll by the National Law Journal found that state and federal judges believed Prof. Anita Hill's charges of sexual harassment 2 to 1 over Judge Thomas's denial. But most surveys of the public favored Thomas, and observers caution that some of the enduring obstacles women face in seeking office - being taken seriously, raising money - remain. "While the issue of sexual harassment has been raised, it is not a clear path of gain for feminists and political defeat for others," says veteran California Pollster Mervin Field. The biggest boost for women candidates next year may come from the calendar. The decennial process of reapportionment will create 19 new open seats, and incumbents are likely not to run in several dozen others as a result of the usual turnover that occurs after districts are redrawn. The same reshuffling will take place at the state legislative level. "The biggest obstacle to women candidates remains incumbency, so redistricting offers a great opportunity," says Pat Reilly of the National Women's Political Caucus. Activists are also banking on an electorate that is becoming increasingly angry over the conduct of elected officials. The hope is voters will be looking for fresh faces, a climate women candidates usually do well in. "What makes 1992 look potentially very good is that the electorate is so volatile," says Jane Danowitz, executive director of the Women's Campaign Fund. The impact of the Senate confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court is less clear cut. Many women's groups, who opposed the conservative jurist from the start because of their concern that he would bring the court closer to overturning the ruling that legalized abortion, have vowed to unseat Senate Democrats who joined Republicans to vote for Thomas. Feminist rancor may prove effective in some races, but in others, particularly conservative Southern states, the resonance will be different. Many of the national polls conducted before the confirmation vote showed both men and women strongly supporting the nominee. "They may have a delicate time picking targets for retaliation," says Mr. Field. "Are they going to go after Southern Democratic senators and allow, perhaps, Republicans or other Democrats get elected who may be more conservative?" Clearly, though, the visage of an all-male Senate committee confronting an issue of so much sensitivity to women has touched off an anger that is pervasive. Even if polls showed more women supporting Thomas, analysts note that those who are upset are more inclined to become politically active. Moreover, activists say their frustration has less to do with Thomas than with a process in which they have no power, symbolized by the all-male panel conducting the hearing. "For me, it was a week of watching women's powerlessness," says Ruth Mandel, director of the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University. She predicts more women will become candidates in 1992, give money, and become involved in the process at all levels. "The first thing all this is going to do is give a boost to women candidates in the early stages of their campaign, which is important, because that is when they have to prove credibility," says Ellen Malcolm, president of Emily's List, a fund-raising network for Democratic women who support abortion rights. The "glass ceiling" for women is most visible in high offices. They are outnumbered 98 to 2 in the Senate and 406 to 29 in the US House of Representatives. The gains have been steadier at lower levels: Women have gone from holding 4 percent of local offices and state legislative positions 20 years ago to 18 percent today. There are 3 women governors and 151 women mayors in cities of over 30,000 population. California, once again, will be a prime testing ground for female empowerment in 1992. Two women - United States Rep. Barbara Boxer and former San Fransisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, both Democrats - are running for the two US Senate seats. Some analysts say Representative Boxer, in particular, could gain from the anger among women's groups over the Thomas flap. In seeking the seat held by retiring Sen. Alan Cranston, she faces likely opposition for the Democratic nomination from Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy (better known) and Rep. Mel Levine (well funded). "I think there is at least a short-term bounce for Boxer," says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe of the Claremont Graduate School. "It will rev up those women who contribute." Other races that will be closely watched next year will be in New York, where Democrats Geraldine Ferraro and Elizabeth Holtzman are likely to go after the seat held by Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R), and in Illinois, where former federal judge Susan Getzendanner is among several women who may challenge Dixon in the Democratic primary. As for the US House, activists say strong women candidates have either announced or are looking at running in Alabama, California, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Oregon, Texas, and Washington. Though it is early to predict, Ms. Danowitz says she thinks 10 women could be added to Congress in 1992.

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